Anthony St. Clair
Anthony St. Clair is a business copywriter, author of the Rucksack Universe travel fantasy series, and a craft beer writer specializing in Oregon. Learn more at anthonystclair.com.
26 min. read
Updated November 13, 2023
In 2018, there were more than 7,450 breweries in the U.S.—well over than the historic high of 4,131 breweries in 1873, according to the Brewers Association. In such a crowded market, making good beer and opening the doors isn’t enough anymore.
But, the good news is, if all those people could start a brewery, then you can too—as long as you know what you’re getting into and have a solid business plan for your brewery.
From running coolant pipes to navigating regulations, starting a brewery is a messy, convoluted job full of twists, turns, delays, setbacks, and surprises—but it’s also one heck of a ride.
In this guide to starting a brewery, we’re going to talk with brewers who’ve been-there-done-that, and we’ll get insights from experts in supporting industries such as insurance and finance, as well as discuss regulatory issues.
While it may be your dream to brew great beer, this guide will help introduce you to the business side of craft beer.
No matter its size or age, every brewery was once a startup.
Brought to you by
Build a strategy
ColdFire Brewing, a 10-barrel brewery, came online in December 2015, founded by Dan Hughes and his brother Stephen. They’re constantly hard at work on business development and recipe formulation, navigating bureaucracy, and enduring the inevitable delays that come with brewery construction, equipment delivery, and regulatory approval.
“We began to get serious about starting our brewery several years ago, and we were still working out details as we prepared to open our doors,” says Dan.
The Hughes brothers developed a solid business plan and built a core team to bring their vision to reality. Backed by a team of private local investors, ColdFire gained access to additional capital through an SBA loan.
While Dan heads up operations, his brother Stephen is head brewer, and their team also includes directors of finance and brand, respectively.
Having a key financial person in place has helped them get better at monitoring cash flow and their overall financial status and needs, says Dan. Most small businesses and startups that are looking to grow—hire a new employee, or buy a new piece of equipment, or open a new location—need to think hard about cash flow, or making sure they have enough money in the bank to meet payroll and other financial obligations.
Committing to regularly reviewing your business plan and financials is a good step toward making more informed, smarter spending decisions, that can have a big impact on a new business’s long term viability. Forcasting, and then comparing your actual results against your projections on a regular basis, will help you spot any issues before it’s too late to do something.
If you don’t have a business plan for your brewery just yet, don’t skip it. Planning is proven to help you grow 30 percent faster. Plus, if you’re going to seek a loan or investment, your funders will expect you to have one. If you’re not sure what you should include in your plan, check out brewery sample business plans on Bplans. You can download them for free to help you get started. Here are two of our most popular example plans:
About the plan: Sedibeng Breweries is a medium-scale brewery located in the growing industrial center of Selebi Phikwe, Botswana. Initial plans are to produce three main lines of beer. These products will be distributed to remote yet extremely viable areas, where the market is appreciative of readily-available, good-quality brew.
About the plan: Located in Medford, Oregon, Martin Cove Brewing Company has been a successful microbrewery for the past three years. This year, Martin Cove Brewing Company will gross $520,000 in sales. With this money, they plan to expand its distribution to selected metro areas within the state of Oregon. In addition, they will introduce a new product, a traditional German Marzen-style lager.
“We know what kind of brewery we want to create and we have tried to let that vision drive all of our decisions.”
“We find this opportunity to open a brewery a privilege, and we certainly aren’t doing this for the money. In fact, we’re taking a significant pay cut to have the privilege to open a brewery. We do so with a vision toward creating a quality brewery that honors the traditions of those that have gone before us.”
“When you build a few good relationships, suddenly they open the door for more relationships, and that pattern has only continued to hold true.
“Our bank had heard of us before we ever met them, and our landlord had been approached by other breweries in the past. Fortunately, we have always found it important to treat people well and listen to good people who have good advice. That has ended up serving us well.”
“They take time—so much time—to file, follow through, and gain approval. Having been planning this for so long, we kind of knew what we were getting into and have thus far been able to get through most of these challenges to-date. But they all take so much time.
“With that said, the federal license, or TTB [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] permit, was the longest and most arduous. The more complex the operating structure of a business, the more information and time required.”
From land use to public taste, the location where you plan on opening a brewery is a crucial decision. Generally, brewers want to set up shop in their own backyard.
All these questions and more will influence the right space for your brewery. However, the main thing is to start with the right space—and one that will be bigger than what you think you will need, says Jason Jordan of Propel Insurance.
“I cannot tell you how many brewers I have talked to in year two to three in business,” he says, “and they all said their biggest regret was not getting a bigger space that they could grow into.”
However, brewers also need to be willing to take a hard look at where they want to locate and do their homework to make sure they can establish a successful brewery there. Word of mouth is no substitute for market research, says Ben Price, co-founder of Hard Knocks Brewing, a small brewpub in its second year of operation.
“The single biggest mistake I have made was locating my business in a town that could not care less about craft beer,” says Ben. He recommends brewers use data firms such as Insightics to see where and how people spend their money in an area.
“You’re looking for a number of 70 percent or more within five miles of the zip code you desire,” says Ben. “I made the mistake of trusting in word of mouth. You want locally oriented people, people who want a good product, made local.”
Your initial system will likely be seven to 15 barrels, but run your own numbers. Figure out how much you’ll need to have in production at a time to be profitable.
A new system might be subject to delays, especially if demand from other breweries is high, but you’ll be able to design to your needs and specifications, and you’ll have support when issues arise (and they will).
“You’ll probably start with a seven-barrel system, spend anywhere between $130,000-$175,000 new,” says Patrick McCarthy, who works in the financial sector and aids breweries with capital and business planning.
A used system might be through the door quicker and might save you money up front, but make sure you’ve thoroughly reviewed the system and seller—and remember that when you have problems, you’ll likely be on your own to fix them.
“Used systems are almost as expensive, so you’re really not saving anything, but you might get it sooner than ordering new. Some folks cut corners by ordering equipment made offshore. Many brewers avoid that due to perceived qualitative differences,” says Patrick.
Ninkasi Brewing began in 2006 on a 15-barrel system and produced 1,650 barrels. In 2018, Ninkasi sold 90,000 barrels and was the thirty-fifth largest brewery in the U.S., and the fourth largest in its home state of Oregon, after powerhouse brands such as Deschutes, Rogue, and Full Sail. In April, 2019, the brewery sold its majority stake to a larger organization.
Co-founders Jamie Floyd and Nikos Ridge leased their startup system from a family running a German restaurant out of a former brewpub. While brewing and self-distributing their beer, Floyd and Ridge purchased property where they could relocate and expand operations. They moved into their current location with a 20-bbl brew system, three 60-bbl fermenters, and one 20-bbl fermenter. A year later, they replaced the 20-bbl brew system with a 30-bbl system, followed by another expansion a year and a half later to 50 barrels. Today they use an 80-100-bbl brew system, but the 50-bbl is still online for special brewing projects and research-and-development beers.
“We continually planned for growth and capacity, catching up the entire first seven years of being open,” says Jamie. “In a way, it’s easy to build out in this way, as you always need something, so it becomes more about the funding and the logistics.
Starting a microbrewery and brewing great beer is not a solo endeavor. It is a constantly coordinated, ongoing set of relationships with customers, government officials, craftspeople, and your internal people.
“The number one piece of advice I give new brewery clients that are in startup stages is to engage your main business vendors early on in the process and find the right people to serve your needs,” says Jason Jordan.
“You need trusted advisors that are proven in the beverage industry and have a decent portfolio of brewery clients. This would be the architect, business lawyer, intellectual property attorney, banker, insurance broker, real estate agent, label maker, hop grower, malt supplier, tank fabricator, and accountant.”
Relationships and keeping an ear to the ground are key not only to establishing your brewery, but in how and when you grow. Jason Carriere, the owner of Falling Sky Fermentation Supply Shop and co-founder of Falling Sky Brewing, has gone through many twists and turns since Falling Sky opened its first Eugene, Oregon brewpub location in 2012. Since then they’ve opened a second location, a pourhouse that focuses on food production, and a third location, a pub and pizzeria on the University of Oregon campus.
“I’d been running the homebrew shop for a while,” says Jason. “I’d already seen several of my best employees move on to become brewers around town, so I thought I’d look seriously at making that expansion ourselves, keep the team together, make it so homebrewers who worked at the shop could have a way internally to go pro.”
In their first year of production, Falling Sky produced 800 barrels, and they produced 1,300 in 2015—and that’s while getting underway on construction for their third location, moving the homebrew shop, and expanding their current brewhouse.
Jason believes strongly in “knowing who your customers are and what they want,” balanced with skill and consistent craftsmanship instead of novelty. “I’m not a big believer in recipes, or special combinations of hops no one has thought of,” he explains. “Breweries don’t really win customers with one beer, but they can lose customers with one beer.”
When it comes to growth, Jason advises a thorough understanding of the brewery’s production numbers and financials, balanced with an on-the-ground understanding of daily operations.
That then informs your instincts and intuition. And all this must be tied together with ongoing communications with staff, business partners, vendors, and other key people affecting your business.
“You wouldn’t want to expand if your brewery is at 60 percent capacity and you have empty tanks sitting around,” Jason says. “You also have to have your pulse in the community and the industry to know whether or not you’re saturating certain things, or if you hear about people wanting your beer but not getting it. But it’s all about how we’re going to expand. Just because someone in a market wants your beer, doesn’t mean it’s part of your strategy.”
You also have to be aware of opportunities that arise, though, even if it’s unexpected—and that brings intuition, opportunity, and relationships back in play.
“We had no five-year plan to open a third restaurant, but when we got approached by the University of Oregon, we listened,” says Jason. “It was one of those things where we didn’t really want to expand, but it was far enough in the future that we could plan it through without a rush. Our second location was more rushed.
We were busting at the seams at the brewpub, especially with the kitchen, so the deli expansion was more to let the pub do more of what it needed to do again. The second location had a bigger kitchen, cold storage, etc., to handle making fries and ketchup. It was a combination of good opportunity and vision.”
But that doesn’t mean it was easy. “It was scary, I’m not gonna lie,” says Jason. “When we first did the deli, it looked like a very bad idea for a few months. But it turned around.”
Jason and his team are not prone to regrets or second-guessing. Not that everything has always been easy or rosy, but he credits solid planning and teamwork with being able to make key moves without looking back and wondering.
For Falling Sky, that includes a strategic decision to focus on location sales instead of wider distribution. “I’m not a big second-guesser. When I make a decision, it’s because I feel confident about that decision, and I’ve thought through the consequences and I’ve come to terms with the consequences of choosing one option over another,” says Jason. “I’m confident in our decision to focus on selling beer over our bar versus the shelf wars and SKU wars.”
Sure, at its heart beer is made from water, malt, yeast, and hops—but there’s an invisible yet crucial fifth ingredient: money.
Raising capital for any business can be a difficult process, and breweries are no exception. In his various roles in the financial industry, Patrick McCarthy has most recently worked as Vice President Commercial Relationship Manager with Bank of the Cascades, which has 35 companies from the craft beverage industry as customers.
Over the years, institutions he’s worked with have directly banked six breweries, a cidery, and a kombucha producer, and Patrick has also advised dozens of startup breweries, from reviewing business plans to helping prospective brewers network with key people.
Patrick sees his role not just as analyzing a business plan or crunching numbers. “You want to be helpful and move the whole business along,” he says. “If a business comes into the bank that’s wonderful, but at the least you’ve made some friends.”
Here is Patrick’s overall advice for startups to make sure they’re not only brewing quality beer, but keeping solid books:
A new brewery is probably not going to a bank for a startup loan (banks usually come into play for capital to fund growth once a brewery is more established). Friends and family are the most common backers, and many startups bootstrap. Some cities, such as Portland, Oregon also have what Patrick calls “beer angels”—private angel investors who understand the beer business and invest in select breweries and cideries.
Loans from the Small Business Administration (SBA) can also be a good avenue, but from “bank to bank the SBA program is used differently,” says Patrick. “Some bankers have a great deal of interest, knowledge, and depth, and can be a champion for a startup brewery. But a lot of banks look at breweries as restaurants and avoid them, or want to see them in business three to four years before they invest.”
When Patrick looks at a new business, here are some of the things he looks for to inform his sense of the brewery’s chance of success:
Each brewery will have its own unique business model and business plan. Before opening a brewery, prospective brewers have to figure out the right business model for their plans, location, interests, startup resources, and long-term vision.
Typical models include taphouses, production breweries, and full brewpubs. There’s also a new phenomenon called an “alternating proprietorship,” says Patrick, where brewers brew part-time on someone else’s system.
Within any model, there are things breweries can focus on to stand out and increase revenue. “Some brewers emphasize food in part because the food dollar can translate into more dollars profit for beer,” says Patrick. “Managing your own distribution is ideal. There are overhead tradeoffs, but I’m seeing it more and more.” Exports are becoming another component, he observes, with international markets such as Japan becoming thirstier and thirstier for American craft beer.
“Everyone’s trying to find what they can afford, what works,” he explains. “Merely making good beer isn’t enough anymore. There’s way too much good beer out there to stand out immediately.”
Even if you’re not seeking funding, it’s still a really good idea to create a Lean Business Plan that you can use to help navigate your business as challenges and opportunities arise. The benefit of a Lean Plan is that it’s meant to be reviewed and changed regularly, so you’re not just taking a snapshot of your business and goals once, and then shelving it for five years.
On an industry-wide basis, for small to medium-sized breweries, the ratio between sales and fixed assets is typically for every $6 of sales, a brewery has $1 of fixed assets.
Estimate brewery startup costs
Start with estimating your startup costs. A new and growing brewery’s biggest costs tend to be the brewing system (e.g., $130,000–$175,000 for a new seven-barrel system) and tenant improvements to the property (which in Patrick’s experience in Oregon, including Portland markets, has typically ranged $200,000–$350,000).
“It’s expensive to alter a commercial space that doesn’t have drains, certain water lines, the required electrical, ventilation, etc.,” he explains. “Many also put in a back bar, seating, etc.” Costs vary by scope, location, and market.
Anticipate delays and setbacks
“Problems with licensing or permitting with the city that cause delay of opening can be extremely expensive,” says Patrick. “Every day they can’t pour their own beer is catastrophic financially. That’s the biggest risk I’ve seen in startup stages: timing.”
Delays are a reality in startup breweries. Brew system fabrication and delivery can take longer than the agreed timetable. Regulatory or permit approvals can drag on for months. Construction can hit unexpected snags. Make sure your financial reserves can handle delays and extra costs.
“Seasonality matters too,” explains Patrick. “You want to have the doors open when the beer-drinking season gets started. Winter months are usually the slowest for a brewery. You want to be open by April or May. Ideally, that’s not always in your control due to startup delays, but starting with April to May you want to operate during those busier months.”
“I’ve passed on a brewer that didn’t respect the accounting process,” says Patrick. “The brewers are focused on their first love, which is making delicious beer. Accounting isn’t necessarily the top and foremost in everyone’s mind, but in this situation, it was irresponsibly ignored. You can’t let the accounting take a distant back seat.”
Just as quality control is essential for good beer, you have to make sure the books are balanced and the financials are being tracked well. “Accounting keeps you out of trouble,” says Patrick. “It helps you plan, helps you get a return, and ultimately helps you generate revenue.”
Okay, so understanding your financials is important, but what do you need to track in order to understand the financial health of your brewery?
As you find your stride in a profitable bottom line, you’ll also examine increasing efficiency. For example, as production volume increases, breweries typically purchase a grain silo. “They can buy in bulk, easily cut grain expense by two-thirds,” says Patrick. “Grain silos tend to pencil out quickly. It’s an exciting step up.”
The same thinking applies across the brewery. “At some point when you get larger, you’ve got more money to squeeze that remaining five percent profit out of your beer.”
Putting together a sales forecast and a cash flow forecast that you monitor at least monthly can be really helpful. Running a business or Lean Plan review meeting that also covers your financials is a great way to hold yourself accountable.
Breweries need various insurance, just like any other business. A brewery with a large employee roster and a fleet of self-distribution vehicles will have different needs from a three-person production-only startup. Find an insurance agent you can trust who preferably has experience working with breweries or wineries.
No, insurance is not as sexy as deciding which new “it” hop is going to be the feature of your new IPA, but if a brewery doesn’t keep current on their insurance needs, says Jason Jordan at Propel Insurance, then they are asking for trouble.
Note: Insurance and bond requirements vary by state, locality, and type of brewery, so make sure you’re talking with your insurance agent and even your lawyer for what’s right for your operation and where you’re planning on starting a brewery.
The biggest concern is the lease contract with the landlord, says Jordan. “That can be boilerplate or have a myriad of different insurance coverage and limit requirements to comply with.”
A brewery’s most common claims tend to relate to workers comp injuries, such as employees straining a muscle or hurting their back lifting heavy items, says Jordan. Lost product from a power outage or mechanical breakdown of a glycol chiller is another common problem, as are backups of sewers and drains (causing damage to the space and interruption of business, equating to lost revenue.
Luckily, once you are up and running with your insurance, “the needs don’t change a lot from a brewery or brewpub that produces 500 barrels a year to 25,000 barrels a year,” says Jordan. “The biggest concern is keeping up with values on equipment for new purchases and expansions to make sure the brewery is adequately insured at the time of a loss. Brewery owners are notorious for brewing good beer and not for keeping up to speed on calling their agent to make changes.” Stay on top of it to help keep your costs lower in the long run.
Of course, there are laws and regulations—and brewing is a highly regulated industry. Your brewery will need approvals and compliance with relevant local, state, and federal authorities, such as your state’s alcohol oversight organization and the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB.
In Oregon, for example, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) mandates a producer carry a $300,000 limit for liquor liability. At the federal level, the TTB requires all new breweries that want to offer beer for sale to submit a Brewer’s Notice. The TTB has a Beer FAQs webpage outlining what you’ll need to do when starting a brewery to have the proper federal approvals.
[Tweet ““No matter how much you think you know, you will have more to learn.”- Jamie Floyd, @Ninkasi”]
“No matter how much you think you know […] you will have more to learn,” says Jamie Floyd, co-founder of Ninkasi Brewing. “It changes and evolves and you have to know the people who are making the changes and you have to be ready to change as a company. If the FDA decides we need to put nutritional info on our bottles you have to do it. It’s the law. You will have to figure it out and pay for it.”
Jamie also recommends getting to know your legislators at all levels of government and working with trade groups that try to update and influence state and federal policies related to the regulation and taxation of beer.
The growth of the industry is also leading to regulations being modified state to state, says Patrick, “if not to encourage craft beverages then to make it a more viable business model.”
In the meantime, compliance is not necessarily easy or fast. “Some of it is more the tediousness of the paperwork. Make one small change, file everything over again,” says Jason Carriere, co-founder of Falling Sky Brewing.
“TTB is known for a lack of timely responses. We submitted our application for the third expansion nearly two months ago, and we’re not even supposed to call and check the status for ninety days. Then when you do call, you sit on hold for two hours to find out where your application is in someone’s stack.”
Breweries also need the Brewer’s Notice. “That’s a brewery’s permission from the federal government to brew commercially,” says Jason. “It involves taxes, a bond you have to pay that serves as insurance for paying beer taxes. You complete an environmental impact statement for water and environment. It’s permission to make an alcoholic beverage and pay the taxes on it in the U.S.”
While starting a brewery requires lots of dedication, capital, vision, and red-tape navigation, it is also a booming industry and brewers who have a solid plan and stay their course have a solid chance of success. “The numbers are proving themselves: Craft beverages are here to say,” says Patrick. “There’s bound to be a slowdown eventually, but there’s one to two breweries a day opening across the country. People want it, and if people want it, people will supply it.”
And that someone could be you.